The Kid Who Would Be King is modern myth done right
Growing up in the United States, I’ve always found Britain a naturally more magical place. Even before Harry Potter charmed his way into our lives, Britain, just by virtue of having actual castles, sparked my imagination about knights, wizards, and dragons. The Kid Who Would Be King is a playful take on the Arthurian legend, with a conscious effort to update and modernize it, even beyond its present day setting.
After a slick opening sequence that uses a clean animation style to recap the important part of King Arthur's story, we meet Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), an average kid at a public school in England. He and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are in the youngest grade in their school (whatever the UK equivalent to middle school is), and they are nothings. They get picked on for being young and a bit nerdy, but Alex does his best to protect his friend from bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor), and Kaye (Rhianna Doris). One day, he pulls a sword from a stone in a concrete block at a demolition site, and things get weird. A strange boy named Merlin (Angus Imrie) shows up at their school, and a flaming skeleton attacks Alex in the middle of the night.
Merlin (revealing his true form as Patrick Stewart) explains over some fried chicken that Arthur’s foe Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) has been trapped for centuries. Now that she senses a chaotic, leaderless time in England (throwing-shade-dot-gif), she is returning to claim Excalibur and plunge the world back into darkness. So Alex, Bedders, and his newly knighted bullies must go on a quest to defeat her forever.
The Kid Who Would Be King is one of the most clever takes on modernizing folklore ever for a few reasons. Firstly, while the word “Brexit” is wisely never mentioned in the film, the film absolutely address the anxiety that children feel in a very uncertain world. Even if they don’t fully understand the political situation, they definitely are attuned to how the adults in their lives are feeling. A lot of this is shown in background news headlines and television reports, which feels like the right representation of the osmosis kids experience and then internalize. Secondly, the cast is racially and economically diverse, and the latter is specifically addressed within the story. Merlin also specifically instructs Alex to create a new version of Arthur’s story, using the parts of the story that make sense now, and disregard things like blood inheritance of national leadership. This allows the film to celebrate the aspects of the Arthurian legends that still inspire us while disregarding the parts that don’t reflect the things we value in 2019, repurposing the Chivalric Code into words to live by today.
I’ve been a fan of writer/director Joe Cornish since at least 2011, when both Attack the Block (which he wrote and directed) and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (which he co-wrote with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat) made my top ten list for the year. Since then, I’ve been eagerly awaiting more work from him, but a string of cautious choices and a bit of bad luck means I’ve been waiting almost a decade. I’m thrilled that The Kid Who Would Be King is worth the wait.
Beyond the careful consideration of how to make stories hundreds of years old seem relevant to a family audience today, the film doesn’t forget to have engaging characters and a wonderful sense of adventure. Alex is a bit more complicated than a typical mythical hero, wrestling with being a kid, and good person, and the wielder of Excalibur. Cornish doesn’t minimize how difficult being honest with your family can be, especially when it involves summoning an ancient sword from a bathtub. The film is charmingly funny, has some well-executed action sequences, and feels like the kind of film we should get more often.
The Kid Who Would Be King opens in Philly theaters today.